Explore: May 2011

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16 posts from May 2011


Lazy Organic Gardener: In Praise of Garden Beds and Weed Whackers

A few weeks ago, the garden looked lush and wild and beautiful, but my enjoyment of it was dampened by the prospect of weeding and preparing for spring planting. Even sitting on the deck thinking about it tired me out.

I haven’t planted anything yet, but this weekend I will, and getting ready hasn’t been as tough as I anticipated. Because, well, the title says it all. This lazy gardener is eternally grateful for his garden beds and weed whacker.

I built the garden beds the winter before last. I loved the look of my garden, with its gentle curves and the way the cultivated areas were tucked in pockets amidst the wild. The yard is long and narrow, with the back forty (square feet, not acres) almost entirely wild, a sprawling and gnarled old plum tree surrounded by ivy growing on the fences, on the ground, and, until last weekend, up four or five of the tree’s main trunks.

I’ve got a plastic compost bin on one side and a metal shed covered entirely in ivy on the the other, and some piles of junk here and there, like stacks of terra cotta pots, and old hoses, which are mostly hidden by vegetation.

Here’s a photo of the southeastern corner of the yard.

But for the middle of the yard, where I get enough heat and sunshine to grow vegetables, keeping the wildness at bay has requires vigilance. (If I went away for five years, the entire garden, probably the house as well, would be smothered by morning glory and ivy.)

Over the years, I designed, and defined, the garden with a series of curves, anchored by a meandering flagstone walkway that bisects the garden. I used plastic bender board to set apart the cultivated areas, and put in some shorter paths with stepping stones, chunks of sidewalk concrete, or bricks.

You can see in the photos below how the tomatoes and the peppers behind them are integrated into the space between the pathway and the sprawling shrubs.

Because the natural world is full of curves, I hesitated introducing the hard geometry of rectangular planting beds. I was concerned I would lose that feeling of wildness. But every winter after the rains and every summer once I turned on the drip line to water the vegetables, I had to push the wild back to the edges and out of my vegetables. Which made it harder to be lazy.

Setting out the drip irrigation lines so they would feed my thirsty vegetables, which were somewhat randomly placed, created a spaghetti-like maze of black tubes with as many tentacles as a school of octopuses. The drip lines ended up watering the weeds as much as the food and flowers.

So the winter before last I built two 4 foot by 8 foot garden beds, a foot and a half high, out of scrap lumber and a few new redwood boards for the ledges around the top. And now that I’ve had them for a year and a half, I don’t know how I managed without them. When they were first completed, the right angles and the straight lines were a little stark amidst the curves and the wildness, but as you can see in the photos below, once the plants started growing, the beds fit right in, without damaging the organic undulation of the garden.

As for the weed whacker — I guess the generic term is string trimmer — let’s just say that after a couple hours one evening last week and another hour or so on the weekend, I was mostly done. My arms got tired and the string got tangled a few times, but the whole experience gave me more appreciation for why farmers use machines.

I still had to devote a couple hours to pulling the grass and weeds growing in the middle of the Peruvian lilies and lavatera, but that’s almost finished as well. You can see the difference between the two photos above. The top one, which looks a lot greener, was taken before the weed whacking, the bottom one afterward. (You can see the most evidence of the haircut in the background by the chairs. The garden might look better with all that green, but now that the rains have stopped, that green would be brown soon enough.)

Another indispensable tool is the broom — I gave the walkways a couple of passes with my sturdy outdoor broom. Then I sat down on the deck with an iced coffee and admired my work.

This weekend, I start planting. It should only take a half hour or so to clear the beds and set some seedlings in. Tomatoes, peppers, squash. Not sure what else. The drip hoses are already set up. I might be able to get it all done in a day or two, then I can be lazy for a few months and just watch my garden grow. Or so goes the theory.

 — John Byrne Barry, a.k.a. Lazy Organic Gardener

Across California: Morro Bay


On Wednesday, Tom, Dave, and I waded down Little Morro Creek, avoiding the metropolis of Morro Bay. The water was over our knees in places and we passed a couple of hobo camps. When we clambered up on sand just north of Morro Rock, my wife Letty, my daughter Frances (who is also Dave's wife), Madeleine -- Tom's spouse, who had to leave the trek at the Carrizo Plain National Monument with a bad ankle that was not getting better, and -- a bit later Ralph the Creek Dog, Cheryl a former student, and associated others greeted us.

Tom, Dave, and I waded out into the surf fully clothed. I was carrying a bag with Colorado River water in it. I felt I was finishing a spirit walk, so I waved the water over my head and all about as I had seen done ceremonially. Then I washed it into the Pacific and waded back to shore.


There was no big party or other social hoopla -- just the way I like things. Ralph said that Morro Rock is a double positive on the magnetic survey of the earth and it was a major sacred site for Native Americans. So, the trek began on the Mojave Reservation and ended at a sacred place.

I did forget to post my final Spot satellite location. Must have been the double positive magnetic zone that affected my brain.


Forty-six days across California have enlightened me in many ways. I shall try to sum things up in a subsequent posting here from this home computer with a real keyboard and a solid connection to the net in the next few days. But, before I close, I want to thank Brian Foley, who edits and posts my entries,  and the staff at Sierra as well as Sierra Club associate director -- the number 2 person on staff -- Bruce Hamilton for permitting me to have this blog and to share my adventures with all of you.

-- Calvin French

Cal, 74, a member of the Sierra Club for 42 years, is trekking 530 miles to highlight the threatened natural corridors between the Colorado River and the Pacific Ocean. Cal sits on the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter Board, represents the Chapter to the national organization, and serves as a spokesperson for the Chapter on the Carrizo Plain National Monument. So, why is he doing this?

Calvin3 "To show that someone can walk across the heart of California on public and conservancy land, avoiding roads and highways, over an area that still looks natural," he says. "And it is through this personal connection with the land, during a two-month journey, that I hope to highlight the necessity of preserving and protecting what wildness remains. If the habitats within this great wildness become cordoned off and isolated, they will eventually die of starvation."


Nature Art: Printing Poppies

For quick art prints, nothing beats using Styrofoam as a printing plate. Soft and easy to carve, the pressure of your pencil works as a knife on this material--and using it in an art project is a way to re-use something that is not easily recycled.

You can draw your image directly on the Styrofoam as I have done here:


Red poppies are the divas of the garden. I wanted to draw them because their petals were so expressive. Once you have drawn your image on the plate, you might embellish it with texture, as I did with the dots on the flower buds. You could experiment with adding other textures, such as ziz-zag lines (using a pizza wheel), parallel lines (using the tines of a fork), or spiral circles (using the spiral binding of a notebook) to emphasize the shapes in your picture. Remember that if you are drawing words or numbers, you will need to write them backward, because printing reverses your image.

When you are finished drawing on the plate, it's time to ink it. I use water-soluble printer's ink because it is easy to clean up and has no odor. Collect a white paper plate, a printer's brayer (to spread the ink), newspaper, and a 2.5-ounce tube of ink.

It takes only five minutes to make a print! Try these easy seven steps:

1. Squirt ink onto the plate in a circle about the size of a quarter.
2. Use the brayer to roll the ink into a thin, tacky layer in the center of the plate.
3. Lay your printing plate face up on newspaper and roll the inked brayer over the surface of the plate.
4. Replenish the ink on the brayer by rolling it in the ink on the plate.
5. Apply ink to the plate using the brayer until the plate has a even coat of ink.
6. I dabbed in some red ink on the plate with a Q-tip after I rolled on the blue with the brayer.

Here is the inked plate:


7. Press paper (I used white copy paper) onto the inked plate, rubbing the paper onto the Styrofoam with your hands.

Lift off the paper to reveal:


The background of my print is patchy because the ink was drying very fast and was difficult to spread evenly. If I had ink extender, I would have mixed in a bit with my ink to help it spread and cover the plate. If you can't find materials locally, you can find the supplies at enasco.com; the printing plates are called ScratchFoam and the ink is from Speedball. Washed Styrofoam meat trays from the grocery store will work as printing plates...but florists' foam won't. It carves as easily as Styrofoam, but it breaks down into a gritty dust that gets everywhere.

Have fun with your own project!

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

Across California: Cuesta Ridge

Now on the Cuesta Ridge, west of San Luis Obispo, my home town. I see the house where I grew up and many other landmarks of my life.

In a few hours we'll reach Cuesta Pass, where Letty will meet us, then out along West Cuesta Ridge for the night. We'll reach Morro Bay tomorrow afternoon if all goes well. I still have some drops of Colorado River water sequestered in my pack for delivery to the Pacific.

The last two days have taken us through the Garcia and the Santa Lucia Wildernesses with their remarkably lush riparian habitats -- what a contrast to Soda Lake in the Mojave!

-- Cal French

Cal, 74, a member of the Sierra Club for 42 years, is trekking 530 miles from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean to highlight the threatened natural corridors of Southern California. Cal sits on the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter Board. He is blogging from a BlackBerry.


Inner City Outings Brings Kids Back on the Right Trail

Lilia_image Most lovers of the outdoors can recollect when the seeds of their passion for hiking, camping, and exploring were planted.

College student Lilia Salas, for example, credits her fifth grade teacher, a Sierra Club volunteer who included students on outdoor excursions. Her teacher was known for letting insects like dragonflies and beetles freely roam the classroom.

"That was the reason I wanted to keep going with it and get into wildlife," says Lilia, who grew up in a neighborhood where many kids fall into trouble and don't make it past high school.

Lilia is now a volunteer with Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program, which consists of 50 groups and coordinates more than 800 annual trips for thousands of young people -- mostly at-risk youth more familiar with urban settings than the natural world.

Lilia has discovered what many ICO leaders have known for a few years now: Nature can provide direction and a sense of purpose for young people who've fallen off track. She has directly seen this as a mentor to younger trip-goers. One girl in particular felt "really lost." Lilia, who was involved in school sports, told her about being on the wrestling team.

"She liked the way I talked about it," says Lilia. "A month later she tried out for the wrestling team at her school and she kept with it. She's going to start next year in high school on the freshmen team."

Kids regularly connect with each other during trips, and some reflect on issues they're having back home, says Melanie MacInnis, Sierra Club's Inner City Outings program manager.

"All the time you hear a kid say, 'Gosh, I didn't know you can have so much fun outside,'" Mel says. "And several times a year you hear kids who say they want to become a park ranger, or a natural scientist or biologist who wants to study plants. We know we make an impact whether it's something small or something that's life changing. That's what we aim to do -- to change lives."

Despite all the outdoor places she's explored, Lilia's favorite spot is near her San Jose, California home on a trail adjacent to a lake -- "even though it's man-made."

"I've ran into a boar there -- or maybe it was a hog. We run into all these animals. I don't get close because I don't want to scare them away because it's already nice to see them. It's my favorite spot because it's full of scenery and really calm."

Lilia is studying natural science and law enforcement. She is thinking of becoming a parole officer and she wants to continue as a mentor.

"I like to help kids who are lost and help them find options instead of them feeling like they can't go anywhere else," Lilia says. "Not only do you make an impact on them, they make you learn about yourself as well."

-- Brian Foley


Across California: 17-Mile Day

Yesterday we trekked from the Carrizo Plain over the Caliente Ridge and then up and down ridges to Gillam Spring, which was cow infested. Now I'm on a 3,800-foot ridged taking a break. Lucky to hit a cell tower somewhere. The Santa Lucia Mountains have too many canyons that have to be crossed sideways for my comfort.

-- Cal French

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