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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Nov 16


Posted on November 16, 2018 at 11:46 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Let’s be honest: Some topics that are important to cover in a gardening blog are more difficult to approach. This week is one of those difficult times. 

Under the current circumstances of wildfire devastation in our Golden State, I’m experiencing some writer’s block, as my thoughts go to friends and family members facing losses. Yet, I really want to share what those “Red Flag Warnings” mean as they appear in the news, on information boards in front of our fire stations, and on many websites including MMWD’s. They are not just words or predictions to dismiss. These words of warning are based on scientific data shared by the National Weather Service (NWS) that carry a special meaning to our firefighters. These words speak to the importance of being extremely careful, as just the tiniest spark can take off before your eyes due to dry vegetation combined with high winds and low humidity—the high-fire-danger conditions identified by the NWS forecasts.

Clearly we cannot control the weather, but we can control and curtail some of our activities that could inadvertently cause ignition. For example, weed eating sounds ominous enough, but a spark can occur if metal hits a rock lodged within dry grasses. Outdoor fire pits are the rage these days, but these marshmallow-toasting ambiance entertainers could be hazardous even if sporting spark arrestors. 

Agastache: prune it back in late autumn
As gardeners, we must take on the responsibility to reduce the fire fuel on our properties. The low humidity means our plants can and will become dehydrated unless we provide moisture to compensate for the dryness in the air or the effect of drying winds. Keep them hydrated or you could lose them—and more. Additionally, to exacerbate the drying conditions that accompany Red Flag Warnings, at this time of year many of our plants are going dormant. This means many ornamental grasses need to be cut back to within inches of the ground—that foliage is dead and the plant energy is now stored in the roots for a long winter’s nap. As I gaze around my own garden, Agastache is telling me the same story. It is done for the season, and the dried foliage could make for some dangerous tinder should it encounter flames. 

Our trees are no exception. I’ve written in the past about limbing up trees to a minimum of six feet. This can help prevent a ground fire from becoming a much-harder-to-manage crown fire. Clean up the slash from tree trimmings. For that matter, don’t stop there, but clean out leaf accumulations in gutters, sweep off needles gathered on rooftops, and store flammables in a safe and well-protected environment.

As I write, the calendar speaks of Thanksgiving next week. The thought of deep-fried turkeys comes to mind. The combination of open fires and oil in the midst of Red Flag Warning days is not a pretty picture. Is there consideration for another option this year? 

Be safe. Give thanks to those fighting the consequences of these fires. And have a blessed Thanksgiving.
Nov 09

A Blanket of Time

Posted on November 9, 2018 at 12:01 PM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

I woke this morning and looked out the window to another clear sunny day. Oddly, the song “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” simultaneously popped into my mind. Although the song had an entirely different meaning for songwriter/musician John Fogerty, the title sometimes feels as if it could be our theme song here in the Golden State. 

The opening lines of the song—Someone told me long ago, there's a calm before the storm—reminded me of our winter storms that have yet to arrive. This in turn got me thinking about the tasks required to keep our gardens healthy and protected through the winter months. As the song continued to ramble through my head, I gazed out to the 100 cubic yards of wood chips waiting to blanket the planting beds for winter protection. (Yes, I really ordered 100 cubic yards … oh my!)

Organic mulch, as you know, is one of the most important elements you can add to the garden, supporting the health of your plants in many ways. It is the blanket that keeps the roots warm during the cold weather and cool in the summer months. As it breaks down, it feeds the microorganisms in the soil that feed the plants. Additionally, it holds the moisture in the ground for extended periods of time, helping us to save water in times of drought and beyond. And that’s not even to mention the benefit of suppressing weed germination. 

There are other garden chores to do before the storms come flooding in. Garden tools require cleaning, oiling and sharpening before pruning season begins. It is also time to review pruning practices for different types of fruit trees. Remember that some fruits or flowers are only borne on new wood, while others are borne on last year’s wood or old wood. Can you tell the difference? There are some good images you can find on websites to help with identification.

Diseased fallen leaves need to be removed from around plants to avoid further infection. And speaking of infections, dormant sprays should be on hand for curbing larvae and unwanted insects. Timing on some of these sprays is important, so stay tuned to learn more as the time draws near.

Meanwhile, get jobs done in the garden while we have these clear sunny days. Plant cover crops to enrich vegetable gardens. When the rains begin, remember to place wide planks down onto the soil to walk upon to prevent soil compaction.

The up-and-coming winter can be a fun time to work in the garden. Make plans for improving areas, creating newly designed living areas and reconfiguring planting areas—instead of thinking it is time to put the garden to bed for a long winter’s nap!
Nov 02


Posted on November 2, 2018 at 11:24 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

leaf and polenta
Top: Beauty of a leaf at Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Bottom: Polenta and pots (photo by Randy Yochum).

Although we use our five senses daily—touch, sight, smell, taste and sound—we generally don’t think too much about them. 

You might be thinking this is an odd topic to discuss in a water conservation blog. But is it? Our gardens require us to use all of our senses when we are walking about or working within them. It is difficult to resist reaching out to touch the soft fibrous hairs of Stachys byzantina, or lamb’s ear, as you walk by this wonderful water-conserving plant. It can also be a painful touch if a cactus brushes against your body, not to mention the prick of thorns while pruning our favorite rose bush.

The beauty of a leaf structure or the overall effect of a well-designed garden will please the sense of sight. Perhaps our eyes may pause at the intensity of color in a flower. That same flower may stimulate our sense of smell as we catch a whiff of fragrance. Sometimes the source of those fragrances can be hidden beneath the leaves or tucked under other plants.

The sense of taste is a particular challenge for this gardener, who cannot manage to pick the Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes growing in the vegetable garden without devouring at least half the harvest. (Okay, to be honest, I don’t think any made it into the house this year.)

Our sense of hearing takes on a different twist. We can’t hear our gardens grow, but we can hear the squawking birds attempting to peck into the apples growing on our trees, or hear small pinecone pieces hit the ground as neighboring squirrels use them to ward off dogs from their bounties of stolen nuts. 

Our senses are used in all the above scenarios, plus many more too numerous to describe. Yet beyond experiencing our senses in the moment, there is something about the senses as they relate to our memories. A scent or taste or vision can transport us back in time. Past sensory experiences embed themselves, and later we find ourselves, in a nanosecond, carried back to our childhood or a special place long since gone.

This happened a few times while we were exploring the countryside in Europe. It was the fig tree heavily laden with fruit that began falling to the ground where we stayed at Lake Como. The smell of figs mentally brought me to my Noni and Nono’s garden in San Rafael so many years ago. It was the sweetness of smell and taste of the fruit that I had not experienced in such a long a time. 

And sitting at my cousin’s dining room table in Italy, I again experienced that déjà vu. That sense memory was triggered by tasting the kind of polenta my grandparents used to cook served with gorgonzola cheese and stew. As we dined, I savored the taste as well as the memory. It was if I had turned the clock back in time. The smell of the herbs permeated the air, just like the herbs always freshly picked from my grandparents’ garden. The copper pot containing the golden maize duplicated the utensils found on my grandmother’s stove. I could recall the cheese cloth spread out on a cutting board with a sprinkling of cornmeal atop prior to the polenta pot being turned upside down to form its own kind of cake. I viewed it all as though I were five years old once again.

We can all experience that kind of transportation in time if we stop and smell the roses during those special moments. It can come to us in the form of freshly cut lawns, first rainfalls, the earth as we dig into the richly prepared soils. Perhaps it can come to us in a song playing or in catching a glimpse of some past remembrance. 

As gardeners, we use our senses in so many ways. We are blessed with our passion for living the outdoor experience, which provides us with a treasure trove of memories stored for future, allowing us to have roses in December. 

Oh, and speaking of time—Daylight Saving Time ends this weekend. When adjusting your clocks, remember to dial back your irrigation timer, too.