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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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Aug 11

Beat the Heat

Posted on August 11, 2017 at 9:51 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

 Colorful container petunias
I’ve just returned from my yearly fly fishing expedition to Canada. On the way, I also enjoyed a long weekend in Bend, Oregon, celebrating the marriage of my granddaughter. While there, I had the pleasure of visiting the groom’s parents and their beautiful home. As I drove up to the house, I couldn't help but notice the cacophony of colorful planters spilling sprays of brilliant red, purple, orange and blue flowers all over. It was a sight to behold.

However, I learned that keeping this floral show going required frequent watering, since the containers received the full hot afternoon sun. I wondered how the task could be made simpler and less labor intensive. After all, a day away could spell disaster. I inquired if they had ever experimented with using polymers in the soil. These tiny beads are added to soil at the time of planting; thereafter, they absorb water during irrigation and slowly release it back into the root zone. It seemed like an avenue to explore for future plantings and for making life more manageable.

Vacations or other extended time away from our plants can create concern for their well-being. I, too, experienced this dilemma before leaving on my journey north. Weather forecasts promised heat spells while I was away, which could prove fatal for plants without a watchful eye. I knew that new plantings, indoor plants and containers would require some special attention before my departure. Luckily, I had polymers on hand. Over the years, I’ve learned of their water- and time-saving properties and put them to good use. 

After assessing what required added attention in my absence, I added the polymers to some new indoor containers into which I transplanted thirsty root-bound plants. I also scratched the polymers into the soil of some outdoor potted plants waiting to go into a new landscaped area. These containers also benefited from a top dressing of mulch and a temporary move into a shaded area. The good news is these efforts worked: Upon my return, I found that all was well in the plant kingdom.

How are you managing your plants in the August heat, particularly when you’re away? Do you find yourself a slave to keeping container plants alive when temperatures climb? Could you benefit from these water saving crystal-like beads by adding a few tablespoons to your soil as you transplant into containers? Share your results, as well as other ideas for keeping plants happy during summer vacations. There are still many days left of August fun in the sunshine!

Have a great weekend and remember to stay hydrated.
Aug 01

Does it Pass the Test as a Garden Pest?

Posted on August 1, 2017 at 10:15 AM by Ann Vallee

by Keith Bancroft, Water Conservation Specialist Supervisor

CA Fuschia
California fuchsia in Harvey’s Garden,Tiburon (photo by Keith Bancroft)
A few weeks ago, I was perusing the aisles of my local nursery when I came across a dozen or so containers of California fuchsia. This is a plant I have wanted to add to my garden ever since I saw a wonderful patch of it in Harvey’s Garden at Blackie’s Pasture last year.

As I was sorting through the containers to find the healthiest looking specimens, I noticed a very large green caterpillar on one plant. I didn’t know what type of caterpillar it was, but I decided to take it (and the fuchsia it was on, of course) home to my garden. When I pointed out the caterpillar to the sales person she took a quick look at the horn on its tail and said, “Oh, you should kill that—it’s a tomato hornworm.”

Top: Tomato hornworm (photo by Oreen Delgado). Bottom: White-lined sphinx moth caterpillar (photo by Keith Bancroft)
I’ve never had hornworms on my tomato plants, and I didn’t have any desire to bring one home to take up residence, but I was hesitant to squash this little guy before knowing definitively just what it was. So, once I got back home, I searched the internet and found that, although it was a hornworm, it was not a tomato hornworm. It didn’t have the tell-tale white stripes across its body.

At that point, I knew what it wasn’t, but I still didn’t know what it was. After a few more minutes of searching, I found it appeared to be the caterpillar of a white-lined sphinx moth. This hornworm doesn’t usually cause any significant concerns for most gardens (unless their numbers are excessive). As an adult, this moth is sometimes mistaken for a hummingbird as it hovers over flowers drinking nectar, and thus its nickname “hummingbird moth.”

This experience demonstrates the importance of recognizing that there are a variety of critters in our gardens—some beneficial, some harmful—and it’s often difficult to identify or otherwise tell the difference between them. I believe it’s best to err on the side of caution and make sure you know what you’re dealing with before making the decision to dispatch them, lest you become the biggest harmful critter in your garden.

A few hours after completing my internet detective work, I went out to plant the fuchsia and found the caterpillar was gone. Perhaps a bird made a meal of it. I prefer to think it crawled away to start the next stage of its life—they burrow just below the soil's surface to pupate and then reemerge as a moth. I’ll be paying closer attention to the hummingbirds in my garden over the next few weeks, and I hope to find an imposter amongst them.
Jul 28

The Root of the Matter

Posted on July 28, 2017 at 11:49 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Last week I spoke of mysteries to solve in the garden and the joy of finding answers. Sometimes the answers are not so joyful!

Bindweed among the poppies
 Bindweed among the poppies
As I rooted around in the plethora of landscape/gardening books, I located the identity of the unruly vine taking over the back garden. It turned out to be field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), which is known to grow six to seven feet a year. It is a perennial, which means I may be fighting this wild thing for years to come. The naturalist in me prefers to hand pull weeds and avoid herbicides. As I began implementing this method of weed control, I unearthed the story of how this plant takes over. At the same time that it is growing at extreme lengths above ground, it is just as quickly setting down root underground. As a result, new offshoots are known to pop up as much as 30 feet away from the mother plant. 

In front of the house I found an entirely different plant that at first seemed innocuous. It had very pretty, tiny purple flowers that transformed into red berries with maturity. It also sported attractive leaves and seemed very happy in the dry shade garden. With that, I initially decided to let it stay. Some further research found that this beauty was belladonna nightshade (Atropa belladonna), known for its poisonous berries. Like bindweed, it is perennial.

Unfortunately, also like bindweed, it soon began overrunning the other plants in its vicinity. As I watched my shade-loving plants being smothered, I knew it was time to eliminate this invader. As I ripped out the woody vine, I discovered that, while the root system behaves differently than bindweed, it is still a root system to be reckoned with. For every inch of plant above ground, six inches lay below. Luckily I have that area heavily mulched and the root system came up relatively easily–another advantage to building healthy soil. Nonetheless, the outcome (no pun intended) was astonishing and unfortunately, as carefully as I pulled, some of the roots broke off, leaving me with knowledge that this invader will be back. 

The good news is removing the top growth of both of these plants is easy. The bad news is they will be a perennial challenge. 

And speaking of perennials, I will be heading to British Columbia for my yearly fly fishing expedition next week. Stay tuned as I bring some amazing pictures of some beautiful parts of this country back with me.