First, Do No Harm: Go Native to Support the Monarch Population

According to a Jan. 17 article published by The Xerces Society, monarch butterfly populations plummeted precipitously in 2018.  The numbers counted were scary-low, the estimated declines, scary-high: possibly more than 90%.
Planting milkweed to restore lost habitat is one important way that concerned citizens can go out and make a difference ASAP.  However, gardeners wishing to help butterflies may actually be compounding the problem by unwittingly planting non-natives. Non-native milkweeds, such as the popular Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), and others which are native somewhere within the U.S. but not in one’s particular climate / region, may actually be interfering in the butterflies’ natural migration patterns.
The following photos are taken from the Xerces Society website. Can you spot the U.S. native?
On the left you see Tropical milkweed, A. curassavica.  It is NOT native and as such can harbor overwintering parasites and disrupt monarch migration patterns.  On the right, Butterfly Weed, A. tuberosa, is native to most of the U.S. (but not to the Pacific Northwest).  The milkweeds look quite alike; they both attract monarchs; but they are not to be planted interchangeably.
If you have Tropical milkweed in your backyard , then you know monarchs love it.  A monarch loves this plant so much it’ll migrate all the way down from Portland or Toronto to Mexico to get its little proboscis on it!  But despite its seeming success in your butterfly garden; despite what the “Gardening Expert” at your local garden center says, or what the bold print on the seed packet might claim, A. curassavica is not native to the United States. It simply doesn’t belong here.
I’m not going to go down the path of telling you you’re only supposed to plant California natives in your California garden.  The garden, and I think the planet, welcomes a little multiculturalism; Japanese maples in Seattle, Dutch tulips in Central Park, and the like!  But, for the sake of our international guests the monarch butterflies, it may be true that only one kind of gardening will do — and that’s to preserve and plant native milkweeds for their benefit.
I believe I’ve witnessed some of the negative aspects of butterfly gardening with non-native milkweed firsthand. When I first purchased and planted Tropical milkweed five-or-so years ago, respectable manager-types at two local garden stores (plus a cursory dip into the Internet) reassured me that it was either “native” or “just fine”.   We had nothing but success with these plants, and the butterflies they hosted, for the first few years.  Strong, beautiful butterflies; fantastic photos; cherished memories.


But as time has passed, even as the plant has spread throughout our backyard, we began to experience diminishing returns, with far fewer monarchs making it past the chrysalis stage.  I suspected a parasite or fungus at work, a hunch which sent me deep into the Internet in search of research, and finally landed on this piece by the Xerces Society.  If you have Tropical milkweed growing in your garden, please take a moment to read the most cogent, comprehensive, compelling words I’ve seen on the topic:
By the time I got to the last paragraph, having recognized the OE parasite condition pictured and described, I’d taken the decision to pull out all our Tropical milkweed and to start again, after last chance of frost, using native plants specifically suited to our Southern California Coastal Climate.
A search for milkweed seeds vis-a-vis the Xerces Society led me to the Theodore Payne Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to educating “Southern Californians about the beauty and ecological benefits of California native plant landscapes”.  Thanks to the guidance of Genny, who graciously took the time to continue to educate me — navigating the native milkweed universe is trickier than one might expect! — I’ve ordered two truly native So Cal milkweeds: Narrow-leaved milkweed, (A. fascicularis) and Kotolo (aka Woolly or Woolly-pod milkweed (A. eriocarpa). 
These seeds required a little more effort to track down, and they’re not free (as opposed to the A. curassavica which would be more than happy to continue self-sowing in my backyard), but they’re the real deal. I’m happy to share them, too, so message me if you’d like seeds.
More on the monarch situation, and more steps we, the people, can take to support them.  But first: let’s do no harm.  I’ll be taking this mid-winter opportunity, while my Tropical milkweed plants leafless and monarch-free, to pull ’em.

Ugly Gardens Grow Great Grub

All winter long, my garden is just ugly.

There’s no excuse for it, really.  We’re in Encinitas, just north of San Diego, where the sun shines pretty much year ’round.

But the truth is, I need a break from gardening in the winter.  There’s other stuff to do.  And then, when the garden starts getting winter-ugly, I really don’t want to go there.  There are weeds — every year more weeds!  (I swear the garden was weed-free when we first planted it five years ago; that sure ended!)  There are towering stalks of kale, bearing ever-diminishing returns; overblown Brussels sprouts too.  The skeletal remains of holy basil, and blueberry bushes, slow to rebound after a soggy, direct-sun-deprived winter stint.  These garden remnants, leftovers from warmer, sunnier times, repel me all winter long.  Too ugly.  Looks like work.  I’m out.

But then on some sunny day, February 25 or thereabouts (I really should make a note on my calendar — I bet it’s the same day every year), the tide changes.  I look outside and see something I really ought to just quickly take care of… then another thing… as long as I’m picking weeds, might as well do something about that leggy loopy vine over there… and I’m BACK, baby!!  Back in the garden — back in love with the garden.  Clawing, spading and weeding, pulling and picking, until surprisingly quickly what had looked irredeemably seedy is once again respectable.  A place where magic could and does happen.  Ripe, if not with fruit, then with possibilities.

Working in an ugly garden is not without immediate rewards.  The patch of earth I’d snubbed all winter had some surprises in store.  Tiny Brussels sprouts, up near the ends of the stalks; some of them wrapped in deceptively brown skins, which peel off quickly to reveal pretty green, eminently edible clusters.  A dozen perfect, if smallish, Yukon Gold potatoes were a complete surprise.  I’d tossed them into the garden after they sprouted in the pantry last year, gave up on them when the plants died back after not doing very much; now, those 3 or 4 bits of spud had grown into twelve delicious little meals.  I admit, I’ve eaten four of them today, and they were the creamiest, smoothest, richest potatoes ever, with a super thin and satisfying skin, enhanced with Kerrygold butter and nothing but.

But of course the pièce de résistance of the late winter / spring garden is the asparagus.  It’s here —  a few new stalks of it every day, each growing up so quickly that I wish I had a time-lapse photography set-up to record the sheer determination of it.  Seeing asparagus popping up in mid-February is a bit concerning — we could certainly use a bit more winter around here!  Nevertheless, it’s always such a pleasure, never a given, to see those asparagus coming back up again out of that plain old ugly brown dirt.

A gardener never forgets the capacity of plain old ugly brown dirt.

And if she does, the garden reminds her.


Blood Oranges & Cinnamon

Slices of local blood orange + a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon = one outstanding snack (not to mention a world-class tequila-shot chaser!)


Have you tried this combination before?  If not, I invite you to try it.  Apples and cinnamon are the classic combination, but oranges and cinnamon unexpectedly elevate each other, too!

When Good Mint Goes Too Far

You may have heard that mint is best planted in containers; that if left uncontained, it goes invasive.  Let me show you what mint will do when left to its own minty devices!

This is the flagstone pathway I built, OK placed, a few years back.  I love it because it lets me walk barefoot into the garden 20 times a day.  There’s no cement underlay, just fabric underneath that’s supposed to keep weeds at bay.  As you can see, that fabric is no match for mint.

the path overtaken... by mint. and black eyed susan vine. and even some chives.
the path overtaken by mint. and black-eyed susan vine. and chives…

The greenery here is “apple” mint — a sweetish, slightly fruity-tasting, fuzzy variety — a wonderful mint, but one which I never meant to plant anywhere near this area — yet here it is, doing it’s best to take the place over.  There’s some black-eyed susan vine in there too — see the pretty pink flowers?  Also invasive!  Plant one vine, and each of the many lovely flowers it drops will produce very viable seeds.  Perfect if you’re looking to cover a back fence, but a real pain in the middle of the garden.

So what prompted this mint situation?  A few years ago, the grapevine now gracing our trellis shared a half-barrel container with a variety of herbs, among them — you guessed it — my favorite apple mint.  When the grapevine failed to thrive in its container, I replanted it at the base of the trellis, taking great care (ha!) to remove any tiny bits of mint roots that were intertwined in the grape roots.  So much for “great care”, because some tiny bit of root did in fact get planted, and though I did make some (fairly feeble) efforts to pull out the mint as it grew and multiplied, eventually those roots found their way into the fertile soil under the flagstones (probably the best soil in the whole garden, since that’s where the earthworms hang out).  The march of the mint was on!

one little, two little, three little mint tips... leads to four little, five little, six little mint tips!
one little, two little, three little mint sprouts… leads to four little, five little, six little mint sprouts!

So, we’ve got a case of invasive mint.  It’s growing fast; but since I’m the one who has to deal with it, it’s not going anywhere fast.  Having a mint forest underfoot kind of annoys my accountant husband, who like to see his flagstones-and-pebbles neatly in rows.  I’m more willing to accept, and want to work with, a garden that’s a bit out-of-control.  It’s boring being in control all the time, and frustrating trying to be in control all the time.  So, I just pull out mint that is growing too far (it will NOT be allowed into the garden beds!), and cut off the sprouts when they get too tall.

The absolute upside of growing mint over a sizable distance is the proliferation of mint “tips”.  They’re the best part of the mint; the newest, prettiest leaves, perfect for eating or as garnish.

Our Pippa is a mint-tip connoisseur. Only the freshest and finest of leaves will do.
Our Pippa is a mint-tip connoisseur. Only the freshest and finest of leaves will do.

lemonade “with benefits”!

A glass of delicious homegrown mint-enhanced lemonade is just the thing after a morning spent managing mint!  Find my (extremely locally) famous recipe for Apple-Mint Lemonade here.

Take a leaf out of mint’s book, and

Grow Where You Are Planted.

: )     Jen.

Small Pleasures

“Small pleasures must correct great tragedies.  Therefore of gardens in the midst of war I boldly tell.”  — Vita Sackville-West

baby watermelon
a baby watermelon; ripe with potential, if not for eating… yet.

a profusion of flowers > a plethora of pollinators

Two years ago, there were so few bees in the garden, I had to pollinate our pumpkins myself.  It was very satisfying work actually, kid-friendly too; I’ll share the how-to’s in a future post.  But the lack of bees was an absolute shame, a real concern, and I resolved to do everything within my gardening power to bring the bees BACK!

I’m working on a longer article on this now for — check it out in a few weeks! — but I’ll tell you here what the difference-makers have been:

  • $10 of California native wildflower seeds, sprinkled randomly around our flower beds, and watered only very occasionally (or not at all).  The result — thanks in no small part to our surprisingly damp spring — has been masses of blooms.  Adiós, mulched-over garden bed austerity; hello, bountiful blooms and bees!
  • No more chemical pesticides.  None at all, for 3 years now.  The black widow is a garden-variety spider here in Encinitas, California.  I don’t love having them back.  But I won’t sanction the collateral damage that comes with spraying them away.

The bee action-shots above were taken this morning.  It’s such a pleasure to see nature at work… and so utterly satisfying to participate, positively, in nature’s pretty, perfect plans.

Peak garden

Our May grey has gone away, and June gloom has given way to abundant sunshine… and a profusion of blooms!  It’s late June, and it’s a glorious time to be in the garden; peak time, in fact!

The beginnings of real heat means the sun-lovers in the garden — tomatoes, cucumber, pumpkins — can really start to take off. But it means that the rest of my backyard — the grass, the wildflowers I’ve loved all spring, everything — will be forced into survival mode.  There’s only so much water I’m able — and willing — to give them.  We’re in a drought, and although I could increase my watering and still be in compliance with regulations (which are amazingly weak), it’s more satisfying to let nature take her course.  Brownish-green is the new green around here, and I’m getting used to it.

So I’m spending a little extra time outside today, not that any excuse is required; pruning back some overblown spring stuff, quietly putting Pippa’s sun-bleached mostly-forgotten plastic toys in the recycling (the less toys, the merrier for Mom)… and mostly, appreciating “peak garden”!

“Twiggy” tomatoes in Nashville

A friend based in Nashville, Tennessee planted her first garden this year, and asked if I had any clues why her tomato plants are still “like little twigs”.  After just a little back-and-forth, we came up with some ideas for her tomatoes, ideas which would apply to any tomato grower, anywhere.

Feed your tomatoes if you want them to feed you  Unless you have a healthy earthworm population in your garden churning out natural compost like crazy, then your tomatoes need to be fed.  Most new raised-bed gardens are not rich in earthworms, and in fact can be pretty sterile places.  My favorite, all-purpose organic plant food is Osmocote. It feeds slowly over time, and never burns.  Feed tomato plants every few weeks during the growing season, or as per product directions.

Consider intensive planting  Another recommendation for tomatoes; plant basil and marigolds all around them. Fill in any spaces with these companion plants. This “intensive” method of planting is really closer to what you would find in nature, which abhors a vacuum.  Filling all available space with plants that grow well with tomatoes will discourage critters, increase yields, and actually help plants use less water by decreasing soil surface heat and evaporation.

Tomatoes, underplanted with marigolds, parsley, basil, and some accidental potatoes left over from winter!
Tomatoes, underplanted with marigolds, parsley, basil, and some accidental potatoes left over from winter!

Check your water  When they’re just taking off, tomatoes need plenty of water (as well as very good drainage).  Water plants deeply, every couple of days — allowing an inch or so at the surface to dry between waterings.  As the summer progresses, you’ll actually want to pull back on the water.  The tomato vines will start to look scraggly and brown, but the tomatoes will grow super sweet — by withholding water, you’re concentrating their flavor.

Prune axial growth  There’s no need to prune tomatoes that aren’t really taking off; but once they do, it’s advisable to help plants keep their shape and channel growth optimally by snapping off the axial growth — “suckers” — that will send your plants’ life force growing in all sorts of crazy directions.  Here’s a visual how-to:

Pruning tomatoes is my absolute favorite gardening “chore”, for kind of a funny reason: I love the aroma that’s released when those branches are pinched off! It’s the freshest, zestiest, summeriest smell possible. So next time you’re out there pinching back your tomatoes’ axial growth, do yourself a favor and smell your fingers afterward!  (Is this weird? I don’t doubt it. It’s a well known fact that gardening cultivates eccentricity; or maybe it’s the other way around?)

Tomatoes are the highlight of the summer garden in many ways, and there’s so much the gardener can do to foster them along.  Hopefully this little bit of a primer helps my friend get her Tennessee tomatoes back on track, and is useful to you, too, wherever you and your tomatoes may be!