All posts by susanb

Nothing but Flowers. Happy Earth Day!

In honor of Earth Day, I’m posting one of my favorite Talking Heads songs, “Nothing but Flowers,” as sung by David Byrne at a TED talk in February 2010 (with a string quartet backing him, not my favorite rendition, but interesting). The song was originally released in 1988 on the Talking Heads album “Naked.”

Whenever I listen to this song, part of me rejoices with certain verses, such as “Once there were parking lots, Now its a peaceful oasis,” and “This was a Pizza Hut, Now it’s all covered with daisies,” thinking how delightful it would be if indeed Pizza Huts would disappear under a cloud of daisies. Or if, at least, some of our mistakes of over-development could so easily be erased and parking lots and highways could be rewound to become peaceful oases again.

But other parts of the song make me realize how attached I am to (at least many parts of) this over-built, concrete-lined, socio-cultural, anthropocentric landscape we’ve created. “I miss the honky tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-elevens,” and “We used to microwave, now we just eat nuts and berries.”

Obviously its ironic. And the point being made: “And as things fell apart, Nobody paid much attention,” is one that I’ll try to remember throughout the year- be careful with our earth and precious resources, work to restore any amount of ecological integrity I can, and pay attention, even if only in my own back yard.

Though I’ll be honest, Pizza Huts disappearing under a cloud of daisies? That would be fantastic.

Nothing But Flowers (lyrics):

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
you got it, you got it

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
we got it, we got it

There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers
you’ve got it, you’ve got it

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
you’ve got it, you’ve got it

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I’d pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it’s nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we’d start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it’s all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
you got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
you got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
you got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
you got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
you got it, you got it

Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

Happy Earth Day!



I know I know. Big-girl gardeners don’t say “ew.” But no matter how hard I try to appreciate and understand it in spite of its appearance, the earwig simply elicits an “ew” response from me.

Earwig. Photo courtesy Andrew Dennes.

Up until recently I considered these to be a mostly benign insect, not particularly liking them but not feeling any particular malevolence for them. I can recognize also that they’re part of the delicate food web, playing roles as decomposers, detritovores, fungivores, etc. Earwigs are also a food source for birds, insectivorous mammals, amphibians, spiders, yellow-jacket wasps and even bats ( That I find the insect particularly unattractive should not lead to its demise.

Until I planted some mustard greens and noticed holes accumulating in the leaves daily. Initially, I wasn’t able to determine the culprit- no caterpillars or other little bugs and the holes just didn’t jive with my experience with slugs and snails which tend to munch much more wholeheartedly from the outside in. A bit of research and a little garden digging et voila – earwigs! In retrospect, I’ve deduced that this past year of attempting to plant seeds and see them sprout and then perish may be at least in part due to the work of earwigs (and their nymphs) in the garden. Earwigs also have been known to feed on clover, lettuce, cauliflower, strawberry, seedling beans and beets, grass shoots and roots, as wells as a variety of tree fruits. Scavengers indeed!

The reason for their inconspicuousness is that they hide during the day, feeding on plants only in the wee hours of the evening. As with all things, earwigs are not all bad. I found through my research that they prey on aphids and other insect eggs and can provide a fair amount of biological control. So it seems the ideal approach is to seek a middle ground- to find a way to reduce populations enough so that tender little plants can grow enough to be able to not be completely demolished by the little bugs but not make excessive attempts to rid the garden of earwigs entirely (an impossible feat anyway, especially for a chemical-free garden).

The solution I found (through UC Davis IPM website) is to sink a can or low-sided container into the ground filled with vegetable oil. They also suggest adding a drop of fish oil, but I don’t have any and yes indeed, it seems to be working pretty well without!  Though now our concern is that the little vats of oil filled with juicy bugs may be a veritable buffet for other little critters that may visit our garden. We’ve often joked about setting up an infra-red camera to witness the nocturnal life of our garden – or perhaps it is best just not to know.

Recovering mustard greens by can of vegetable oil.

In the above image, notice the old, damaged mustard greens among the healthier new growth. Perhaps soon we’ll be able to harvest the lovely greens…and I suppose figure out a way to prepare them – Any suggestions?



Falcon babies!

This week San Francisco happily welcomed four new peregrine falcons into the city. This morning the fourth egg hatched and we have a happy family of six. The parents (Dan and Cher) have been sharing the duties of nesting and providing food for the little ones. Thanks to a “FalconCam” installed by The Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, the live events of hatchings, feedings, and hours upon hours of nesting and brooding are accessible to the public on UCSC Research Group’s website:

Video clips are also published on YouTube, and this morning’s video features Papa Dan nesting with the newborns when Mama Cher arrives (around minute 5:40) and proceeds with the feeding:

The peregrines nest on the 33rd floor roof on the PG & E building in downtown San Francisco:

PG&E Building
The San Francisco PG&E building, atop which lies the nest of our falcon family. Photo courtesy KQED Quest, by Sarah Skikne.

The nesting box was provided by the UCSC research group to encourage nesting by local peregrines hunting in the region. The UCSC group was pivotal in the recovery of the western Peregrine Falcon population which had neared extinction due to the downstream effects of DDT on eggshells, causing them to thin and weaken preventing successful brooding. In the 1970s there were just 2 pairs of Peregrines known to exist in California, and apparently no nesting pairs east of the Mississippi. Due to recovery attempts, there are an estimated 250 pairs of nesting Peregrines in California and the populations throughout the U.S. have recovered enough that the species was removed from the Federally endangered list in  1999.

According to expert sources ( the newly hatched chicks or eyases (eyas, singular, for a nestling falcon or hawk) don’t feed for the first 24 hours, as it seems they spend so much energy getting out of the egg shell they spend the first day resting and recovering from that process. Until about 10 days in age the newly hatched chicks require constant brooding as they don’t have enough down to keep themselves warm. After they build up their coat of feathers they require less brooding but more food. Parents Dan and Cher will be spending a lot of time hunting to feed their babies.

After about 5 weeks, the eyases have grown into juveniles with mature plumage and start the process of learning to fly. I’m already a bit nervous for the little ones learning to fly from such great heights, but am excited to be able to watch it all from the FalconCam!

These are magnificent birds that provide our cities with a much needed top-level predator to help keep curtail populations of the Rock Pigeon- the introduced, escaped, and now overly common population of bird filling many of our cities. I must remember to keep my eye on the sky when in downtown SF and hopefully someday will catch a glimpse of one of these beauties in flight.

A San Francisco Peregrine Falcon in flight. Photo courtesy KQED Quest, by Glenn Nevill.



Man [what a] root!

Marah fabaceus, commonly referred to as the California Manroot, Old man root, or the Wild cucumber, is an almost shockingly vigorous vine native to the San Francisco Bay area. There are in fact five manroots native to California, with Marah fabaceus being the locally prominent species. Since moving in to our lovely home, each spring incites the battle of the manroot vine, as our neighbor’s lushly growing vine makes every attempt to find its way into our serene little oasis. The rampant growth is triggered by the winter and spring rain, and as soon as we enter our prolonged dry season the foliage backs off, the life of the plant retreating to an oasis under the soil- its oft proclaimed giant root that can be (seriously) the size of a human.

I must admit I haven’t actually seen the root, just the above-ground plant and that combined with the legend of the root is enough to make me nervous. Our neighbor’s yard is succumbing to this vigorous plant:

California Manroot Vine – taking over neighbor’s yard

As it reaches over and through the fence, I must act quickly lest the fruit mature and eject (yes, eject!) seed into our yard. I’m a tad surprised this thing hasn’t consumed San Francisco. Apparently summer watering regimes can keep the plant in an active growing state as mentioned by local expert Jake Sigg in his description of this plant on California’s Native Plant Society’s (CNPS) website:

As a volunteer at the San Francisco Botanic Garden, I recently spent an afternoon scrambling through trees and shrubs trying to remove the vine from the Australian section of the garden. I had hopes of finding the source of the plant’s innumerable stems and perhaps even digging to reveal this legendary root. It was not to be revealed that day though, leaving that discovery for anther day.

Marah fabaceus, the California Manroot Vine at the San Francisco Botanical Garden (in the South African section)
Marah fabaceus fruit


Some of you may recognize the name Marah, as it is taken from the Bible,

“So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea…and when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; and therefore the name of it was called Marah.”-Exodus 15:22

As the name and reference suggest, the plant is extremely bitter. Mr. Sigg in his CNPS entry notes that if you “touch your tongue to a cut root…your jaw will lock.” Though commonly referred to as the Wild cucumber no parts of this plant are edible, but does have some medicinal use mostly as a purgative, though some Native American tribes used it to sooth aches and pains (  They also used a mash of the root to stun fish for ease of fishing. 

An interesting plant indeed (and native to boot) though I’m thankful its not in my backyard.


the Zen of disorder.


Pile of rubbish you might say? Well yes, that is indeed one way of looking at it. And in my tiny urban backyard, allowing piles of such rubbish to exist seems a foolish waste of space- why leave such an unsightly pile when I could remove it and plant something lovely? It is my inclination to dispose of this pile (especially with San Francisco’s municipal composting, since it isn’t going into a landfill, why not just put it in the green bin?).

But recent readings remind me of the benefits such piles of rubbish, and other dead and decaying matter, can offer to my little garden, and I’m now thinking perhaps I should provide a space for the unsightly as well as for the overtly aesthetically pleasing.

One of the books I’ve mentioned previously, the Xerces Society’s Guide to “Attracting Native Pollinators,” discusses the importance of resources such as this brush pile for a variety of pollinating insect species. Perhaps beetles or mason bees will find these abandoned branches an alluring place to lay eggs. Other critters may find this brush pile appealing as well, such as spiders or any number of decomposing insects, which while slowly decomposing this organic matter will contribute to the soil and improve conditions for plants (well, perhaps, but more thoughts on this another time). The insects and spiders will provide many species of birds, even the seed-eaters, with much-needed protein.

Gene Lodgson (the “Contrary Farmer” found at, wrote a book many years ago called, “Wildlife in the Garden,” and I have found it to be a refreshing and informative re-imagining of backyard gardens and landscapes.  He makes clear that the health and vitality of even the smallest garden is driven not by fertilizers, pesticides, weeding, and the kind of control (which to many a gardener, myself included, often feels like care) but by the connection to the cycle of life that can be cultivated by letting nature be. The Xerces Guide refers to this as “benign neglect.”

Other such examples from my garden are the stumps of trees and shrubs:

lilac stump

various seed heads on flowers and shrubs:

yarrow seed head

I also discovered recently that many species of hummingbirds use lichens to make their nests. I had previously viewed the lichens covering our old azaleas as a sign of their decline, thinking that perhaps if i removed the most affected branches that I could perhaps improve their health and vitality. But understanding this connection with hummingbirds helped me to become settled with (Zen-like, you might say) about such a decline, and see it as the continuation of the cycle of life. Perhaps the azaleas are dying, and these things happen. But in their process of dying, they will help support the life and growth of other parts of my garden.

lichens on old azalea

Perhaps of the most important tools in our gardening repertoire is the power of observation. Slowly looking and seeing, often before taking action I think can often alert us to some of these amazing connections happening right in our own back yard. Nature is indeed everywhere!


Charmed, I’m sure.

Magnolia laevifolia 'Strybing Compact' flower
Magnolia laevifolia ‘Strybing Compact’

I love meeting new plants, and on a recent visit to the San Francisco Botanic Garden I came across a plant that really caught my eye- Magnolia laevifolia ‘Strybing Compact’. It is definitely a compact Magnolia both in stature and flower. According to the SF Botanic Garden website the plant has been there for 15 years and has reached 5-6 feet in height and slightly less in width.

The flowers are rather dainty as well, only about 2-3 inches wide when fully open, the flowers having been preceded by beautiful brown, velvety buds.

the brown, velvety bud of Magnolia leavigata 'Strybing Compact'

The magnolia genus is pretty interesting, as they’re one of the oldest flowering plants on the planet, one of the first to diverge from the gymnosperms (conifers, cycads, Ginkgos, and Gnetales). They evolved in a time when there were relatively few pollinators available (bees and butterflies did not even exist yet!) and are typically pollinated by beetles (though I believe they can be pollinated by bees as well). Their fruits are generally large and are a bit reminiscent of cones, but at maturity obviously quite different with red seeds being exposed that are quite popular with birds.

No this plant is not native to San Francisco – indeed no Magnolias are native to any of the western states, primarily being found east of the Mississippi (and Texas) in the United States and many species also originating from China, Central America, the West Indies, and South America. Still, a beautiful and stalwart garden addition. Unfortunately not readily available in cultivation, but if you live in the SF Bay Area you may be able to track a specimen down at their upcoming annual plant sale, May 3, 2014:

Hardly Strictly Native.

Though I do feel I should be. Strictly native that is. It is so very difficult though not to find myself swooning over a flower, a leaf, or even the twining tendril of some foreign plant to the point where I feel I must have this plant in my garden. My most recent enchanter was Helleborus ‘Penny’s Pink’ (aka Lenten Rose) which I came across at the San Francisco Botanic Garden plant stand.  

Helleborus 'Penny's Pink' flower on flickr

My guilt makes me curious- need I feel so guilty? To be sure, a yardful of natives would certainly provide more “natural” habitat and resources for local fauna. Though one must always use the word natural with consideration, as really, what is natural about my urban backyard in the first place? And what fauna will be provisioned by my backyard habitat? At the very least, I would hope that it could provide some sort of resource for some visitor or resident- be it pollen, nectar, or maybe at the very least a bit of shelter (it could end up just being an additional resource to the slugs in the garden- argh!)

So, a closer examination of my Lenten Rose. Largely of European origin Wikipedia tells me ( The colorful parts of the flower are actually not petals, as is typical but modified sepals, while the petals have evolved to form nectaries (also referred to as honey leaves). 

Diagram of floral parts of Helleborus 'Penny's Pink'

My first question is, what pollinates it? A quick search of the web lead me to this site:, which tells me that Helleborus species aren’t fussy about who pollinates them. Which makes sense considering that as early as these plants flower (early spring- March here in San Francisco, other parts of the U.S. later, the Missouri Botanic Garden states April) that fussiness would be a problem for pollination and seed set as there just aren’t that many pollinators around. Though an online journal article ( indicates that the genus is primarily pollinated by bees.

So maybe eventually one of our Yellow-Faced bumble bees will eventually find this plant and find the pollen and nectar a lovely additional resource at this early season when there isn’t a whole lot else blooming in the garden. And I’ve yet to hear of Helleborus being invasive, so seed set and distribution I shouldn’t think will be a problem. And perhaps a spider will set up shop under its leaves, and our friendly California Towhee who loves to scratch around looking for bugs will find it a good place to find lurking spiders and yummy insects.

Oh good! Perhaps a not-so-bad addition to our garden! And I get to swoon (with little guilt) over the flowers every spring too…and hopefully someday will witness a pollinator enjoying a drink of nectar from the honey leaves.

The Big Bee.

In our little San Francisco backyard we have had a regular bee visitor – and it is big. So big that if I’m inside (as much 30-40 feet away from it) I can see it flying around, a big black dot roaming through the air. On many occasions I’ve grabbed my camera and ran outside in an attempt to take a photo of the bee for identification and documentation but unfortunately it will never light long enough for me to be able to take its photo. And it has made me very curious.

I’ve done some research on the web and purchased The Xerces Society’s book, “Attracting Native Pollinators” in an effort to learn more and hopefully ID this bee while it is hanging around. Some good bee ID resources I’ve found are:

As I haven’t been able to get a good photo of the bee, my research seems to lead toward identification as a Bombus sp. (a Bumble Bee), possibly Bombus Vosnesenskii:

The yellow-faced bumble bee at rest on a leaf

Additional information:

– Solitary Queen typically overwinters in ground in small cavity (hibernaculum)
– In spring, Queen emerges and begins flying around looking for a nest site, while stopping to feed on nectar producing flowers
– Once deciding on and settling into her nest site, she remains in the nest (by and large),  lays eggs and about a month later eggs start hatching – these are all females and work as foragers, maintain nest, and care for the brood
– THEN, in the fall males are produced and shortly after a number of new queen bees, who all leave the nest mate (then the males die) and the new queens go and find overwintering sites. The reigning queen dies.
So my conclusion is that:
What is flying around now is possibly a recently emerged queen looking for a nest site. We may not see her again if she’s found a nesting site. I guess I’ll be okay with not getting a photo of her if that is the case, and will hope to see other Queens around fall as they’re searching for overwintering sites. I’ll also be on the lookout for the worker bees this summer!